India needs a museum for those scarred by Partition

I wondered where did these people get the courage to live on and start afresh.

 |  3-minute read |   21-08-2015
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Call it passionate desire or temporary insanity (and after all, there cannot be much difference between passion and lunacy!) but I have always wanted to set up a Partition museum. Like other children born to a generation that underwent the chaos and tragedy, I too grew up with visions of thousands marching away to a new country, and facing all sorts of hardships. Hearing and reading about the Partition made me believe that there could not be people more stoic, more innocent than those Indians who lived in the 1940s, the dreams and hopes they had about obtaining independence... and how quickly these turned to ashes. The two ends of the country were caught in a fire that was to rage for years... and in some ways, the fire still smoulders on. We are being reminded of it everyday.

But for me, behind the fire lie innumerable personal stories. Even some very close to home. For instance, I had been told how my grandfather couldn't believe when Partition was announced. "This cannot happen," he said. "I have never heard of a nation being divided just like that overnight." The family locked their home in Lahore. They got into a car and drove to Amritsar, to avoid the riots. But they could never return. They lost everything.

My family, however, was not unusual. When we speak of loss, just look into the eyes of countless Indians who witnessed the Partition. They don't talk about it, but they know about pain, suffering and loss.

Delhi is a city of refugees, some people say. And perhaps each family harbours a tale as unsettling as the one my family experienced. Of course, there was compensation, but can it ever be the same?

And so I was haunted by this idea of a museum dedicated to the twelve million who crossed over, and the many more who were permanently lost or scarred. Where did these people get the courage to live on and start afresh? How did they carry that division in their heads, and in their hearts? And what had they actually undergone, and how could they feel whole again?

On the India-Pakistan border, there is a broad white painted road divider, called the "Zero Line". On a recent visit to Pakistan, I stood on it. How many of us have that Zero Line embedded deep within us, a nostalgia we inherited from our parents?

After viewing the awe inspiring apartheid museum in South Africa, I learnt that it is possible to face the worst within us. To pull it out and confront it. To understand both the violence and the compassion that events like this evoke. Salima Hashmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz's daughter has expressed it very well: "The only way to erase this memory is not to lose it," she says, supporting the idea of a Partition Museum. So let us share our real histories with each other, instead of burying them.

Thus, I am hoping that with a group of family, friends and supporters, who believe in this very strongly, we will be able to construct a real, physical museum, where we enshrine the memories of those many millions of people whose names we have forgotten today. The Partition Museum would be like a "site of conscience", many of which exist in other parts of the world. We would also be careful to document the history and the changed geography, as well as how the art, literature, cinema, and other media dealt with it... and continues to do so.

And please, for those who endlessly seek politics in everything, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, (in Big Emphatic Capital Letters) political about it. The Partition Museum Project will be for us, and by us, the people of all three affected countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Kishwar Desai Kishwar Desai @kishwardesai

Author/Columnist, Winner of Costa First Novel Award for Witness the Night. Her 3rd novel The Sea of Innocence is out.

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